Complete History of Taiwan

Bird's eye view of Fort Zeelandia in Dutch Formosa in the 17th-century

Contrary to popular belief, the Island of Taiwan dates back tens of thousands of years. Let’s look at the history of Taiwan from the very beginning. 

Ancient History

The oldest sign of humanity in Taiwan consists of three cranial pieces and a molar tooth found at Chouqu and Gangzilin, in Zuojhen District, Tainan. These are considered to be between 20,000 and 30,000 years old. The earliest artifacts are chipped-pebble tools of a Paleolithic culture discovered in four caves in Changbin, Taitung, dated 15,000 to 5,000 years ago, and comparable to contemporary sites in Fujian. The same art is found at sites at Eluanbi on the southern tip of Taiwan, continuing until 5,000 years ago. At the beginning of the Holocene 10,000 years ago, sea levels rose, forming the Taiwan Strait and cutting off the island from the rest of Asia.

Around 3,000 BC, the Neolithic Dapenkeng culture appeared and instantly spread around the island’s coast. Their sites are marked by corded-ware pottery, polished stone adzes, and slate points. The residents cultivated rice and millet but were also profoundly reliant on marine shells and fish. Most researchers believe this culture is not acquired from the Changbin culture but was carried over the Strait by the predecessors of today’s Taiwanese aborigines, speaking early Austronesian languages. Some of these people later relocated from Taiwan to the islands of Southeast Asia and thence throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Malayo-Polynesian languages are now spoken across a massive area from Madagascar to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand, but form only one branch of the Austronesian family, the rest of whose subsidiaries are found only on Taiwan.

Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company came to the region in search of Asian trade and military bases. Defeated by the Portuguese at the Battle of Macau in 1622, they attempted to occupy Penghu but were driven off by the Ming authorities. They then constructed Fort Zeelandia on the islet of Tayowan off the southwest coast of Taiwan. (The place is now part of the main island, in modern Anping, Tainan.) On the adjoining mainland, they built a smaller brick fort, Fort Provintia. Local aboriginals called the area Pakan, and on some old maps, the isle of Taiwan is named Pakan.

Spanish Colony

In 1626, the Spanish Empire, seeing the Dutch port on Taiwan as a threat to their colony in the Philippines, built a settlement at Santísima Trinidad on the northeast coast of Taiwan (modern Keelung), building Fort San Salvador. They also made Fort Santo Domingo in the northwest (modern Tamsui) in 1629, but had deserted it by 1638. The small colony was tormented by disease and a hostile local population and gained little support from Manila. The Dutch Governor Pieter Nuyts got involved in a conflict with the Japanese Hamada Yahei.

Kingdom of Tungning

On the mainland, Manchu troops broke through Shanhai Pass in 1644 and rapidly conquered the Ming dynasty. In 1661, a naval fleet led by the Ming loyalist Koxinga landed in Taiwan to expel the Dutch from Zeelandia and build a pro-Ming base in Taiwan. Koxinga was born to Zheng Zhilong, a Chinese merchant and pirate, and Tagawa Matsu, a Japanese woman, in 1624 in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. He was raised there until seven and moved to Quanzhou in the Fujian region of China. In a family made wealthy from shipping and piracy, Koxinga acquired his father’s trade networks, which stretched from Nagasaki to Macao. Following the Manchu advance on Fujian, Koxinga escaped from his stronghold in Amoy (Xiamen city) and besieged Taiwan to establish a strategic base to marshal his troops to retake his base at Amoy. In 1662, following a nine-month siege, Koxinga captured the Dutch fortress Zeelandia, and Taiwan became his base.

The Taiwanese Aboriginal tribes who were earlier allied with the Dutch against the Chinese during the Guo Huaiyi Rebellion in 1652 revolted against the Dutch during the Siege of Fort Zeelandia and defected to Koxinga’s Chinese forces. The Aboriginals (Formosans) of Sincan defected to Koxinga after he granted them pardon. The Sincan Aboriginals then proceeded to work for the Chinese and behead Dutch people in executions. The frontier aboriginals in the mountains and plains also abandoned and defected to the Chinese on May 17, 1661, celebrating their freedom from mandatory education under the Dutch rule by dragging down Dutch people and executing them and trashing their Christian school textbooks. Koxinga died four months after the siege was over, there were speculations that he died in a sudden fit of madness when his officers refused to carry out his orders to execute his son Zheng Jing. Zheng Jing had an affair with his wet nurse and conceived a child with her. Other tales are more candid, attributing Koxinga’s death to a case of malaria.

Han settlers

From 1683 to about 1760, the Qing government restricted immigration to Taiwan. Such limitation was relaxed following the 1760s, and by 1811 there were more than two million Chinese immigrants in Taiwan. In 1875 Taipeh Prefecture was placed under the jurisdiction of Fujian Province. Also, there had been several conflicts among Chinese immigrants. Most battles were between Han from Fujian and Han from Guangdong, between people from different areas of Fujian, Han and Hakka settlers, or solely between people of different surnames involved in family feuds. Because of these immigrants’ strong provincial loyalties, the Qing government felt Taiwan was somewhat challenging to govern. Foreign invasions also plagued Taiwan.

Given the strategic and economic value of Taiwan, there were British suggestions in 1840 and 1841 to seize the island. In September 1841, during the First Opium War, the British carrier ship Nerbudda became shipwrecked near Keelung Harbour due to a typhoon. The brig Ann also became shipwrecked in March 1842. Most of the crew were Indian lascars. Authorities transferred survivors from both ships to the capital Tainan. The Taiwan Qing commanders, Ta-hung-ah and Yao Ying, filed a false report to the emperor, claiming to have defended against an attack from the Keelung fort. In October 1841, H.M.S. Nimrod sailed to Keelung to search for the Nerbudda survivors. Still, after Captain Joseph Pearse found out that they were sent south for custody, he ordered the bombardment of the harbor and destroyed 27 sets of cannons before returning to Hong Kong. Most of the survivors—over 130 from the Nerbudda and 54 from the Ann—were executed in Tainan in August 1842.

The Aboriginals often butchered the wrecked crews of Western ships. In 1867 the entire American team of the Rover was decimated by aboriginals in the Rover incident. When the Americans launched the punitive Formosa Expedition in retaliation, the aboriginals overpowered them and forced them to retreat, killing an American marine while sustaining no casualties themselves.

Sino-French War

During the Sino-French War, the French tried an invasion of Taiwan during the Keelung Campaign in 1884. Liu Mingchuan, who led the defense of Taiwan, recruited Aboriginals to serve beside the Chinese soldiers in fighting against the French. The French were routed at the Battle of Tamsui, and the Qing forces pinned the French down at Keelung in an eight-month-long campaign before the French withdrew. Because of these incursions, the Qing government began constructing a series of coastal defenses. In 1885, work commenced making Taiwan a province, with Liu Mingchuan serving as the first governor. He divided Taiwan into eleven counties and tried to develop relations with the aborigines. He also designed a railway from Taipei to Hsinchu, installed a mine in Keelung, and built an arsenal to enhance Taiwan’s defensive capability against foreigners.

Following a shipwreck of a Ryukyuan vessel on the southeastern tip of Taiwan in winter of 1871, in which the heads of 54 crew members were taken by the aboriginal Taiwanese Paiwan people in the Mudan incident, the Japanese sought to use this incident as a pretext to have the Qing formally acknowledge Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands as Japanese territory and to test reactions to the potential expansion into Taiwan. According to records from Japanese documents, Mao Changxi [zh] and Dong Xun [zh], the Qing ministers at Zongli Yamen who handled the complaints from Japanese envoy Yanagihara Sakimitsu [ja], replied first that they had heard only of a massacre of Ryukyuans, not of Japanese, and quickly noted that Ryukyu was under Chinese suzerainty. Therefore this issue was not Japan’s business. The governor-general of the Qing province Fujian had rescued the survivors of the massacre and returned them safely to Ryukyu. The Qing authorities explained that there were two kinds of aborigines on Taiwan: those governed by the Qing, and those unnaturalized “raw barbarians … beyond the reach of the Qing government and customs.” They indirectly hinted that foreigners traveling in those areas settled by indigenous people must exercise caution.

As part of the settlement for losing the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing Empire ceded the islands of Taiwan and Penghu to Japan on April 17, 1895, according to the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The loss of Taiwan would become a rallying point for the Chinese nationalist movement in the years.

After the Yanagihara-Yamen interview, the Japanese explained that the Qing government had not opposed Japan’s claims to sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands, disclaimed any jurisdiction over Aboriginal Taiwanese, and had indeed consented to Japan’s expedition to Taiwan. The Qing dynasty made it clear to the Japanese that Taiwan was definitely within Qing jurisdiction, even though part of that island’s aboriginal population was not under the influence of Chinese culture. The Qing also pointed to similar cases worldwide where the dominant culture of that country did not wholly subjugate an aboriginal population within a national boundary.

The Japanese nevertheless launched an expedition to Mutan village with a force of 3600 soldiers in 1874. The number of killed Paiwan was about thirty, and that for the Japanese was six. Eventually, the Japanese withdrew after being paid a massive indemnity by the Qing. This incident caused the Qing to re-think the importance of Taiwan in their maritime defense strategy, and greater emphasis was placed on gaining control over the wilderness regions.


It was not until the fall of the Chinese navy during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894–95 that Japan was eventually able to gain ownership of Taiwan. It saw the shifting of Asian dominance from China to Japan. The Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed on April 17, 1895, ceding Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan, which would rule the island for 50 years until its defeat in World War II.

World War II

Japan started on the full-scale war in China in 1937; it expanded Taiwan’s industrial capability to manufacture war material. By 1939, industrial production had exceeded agricultural production in Taiwan. At the same time, the “kōminka” imperialization project was put underway to instill the “Japanese Spirit” in Taiwanese residents, and ensure the Taiwanese would remain loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor ready to make sacrifices during wartime. 

In 1942, after the United States entered the war against Japan and China’s side, the Chinese government under the K.M.T. renounced all treaties signed with Japan before that date. It made Taiwan’s return to China one of the wartime objectives. In 1945, Japan surrendered with the signing of the instrument of surrender and ended its rule in Taiwan as the area was put under the central control of the Republic of China government in 1945 by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. 

From the 1930s onward, the Chinese Civil War was underway in mainland China between Chiang Kai-shek’s R.O.C. Government and the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong. When the Communists attained complete control of Mainland China in 1949, two million refugees, predominantly from the Nationalist government, military, and business community, fled to Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) was established in mainland China by the victorious communists; several months before, Chiang Kai-shek had established a provisional R.O.C. Capital in Taipei and moved his government there from Nanjing. Under the Nationalist rule, the mainlanders dominated the government and civil services.

That’s how Taiwan became a newly independent country.

Source: Taiwan Government Site, Wikipedia

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